BAGHDAD — Iraq's presidency council passed a critical law Wednesday to organize provincial elections that were originally scheduled for Oct. 1 and now are likely to be held sometime early next year.
Approval of the law fulfills a major U.S. government benchmark and marks an important advance in the political sphere, which has lagged behind improvements in security.
Despite the law's stated deadline of Jan. 31 for elections in 17 of Iraq's 18 provinces, there may be a further postponement, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission. "It's not possible to implement the provincial election this year because the time left is not enough to finish the work plan," said Qassim al Aboudi, the commission's executive director.
The commission has yet to receive a list of candidates, which it then must approve, and it needs to hire some 300,000 people to staff the vote on election day.
"We are doing our best and we're working very hard to prepare everything before January 31. But if we can't finish our work we will inform the parliament and ask them to set another date for the election," he said.
Kurds walked out of a parliament session in July after passage of a bill that required Kurds to share power with Arabs and ethnic Turkomen in the contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, criticized the law, and the council rejected it.
Kurds have long demanded that Kirkuk, a northern province, be absorbed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Saddam Hussein had settled thousands of Arabs throughout the province during his reign, forcing Kurds and others from their homes. Now Kurds have reversed the process, and Arabs are being forced to leave their homes.
The solution hammered out over the summer was to postpone a resolution of the Kirkuk issue as a special committee studies it.
After approving the law, the Presidency Council decided to send a separate bill to parliament to restore a deleted article that assures minority representation in provincial assemblies. Christians across Iraq objected to the removal of the clause and even staged a demonstration on Monday to demand representation.
The Council plans to propose the law to parliament this week, said Nasir al Ani the chairmen.
Some powerful parties fear coming provincial elections will dethrone them. In Anbar's western Sunni province the Awakening council, largely credited with fighting off al Qaida in Iraq and stabilizing the province, sees the elections as an opportunity to rise to political power. But its rise will mean the demise of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in Iraq right now.
In the south, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is the most powerful Shiite party because of its hold on Shiite provinces. It is unclear who'll be victorious in the Shiite region.
Even with final approval of the elections law, other political hurdles remain. The parliament has been unable to pass an oil-revenue sharing law or amendments to the constitution, both long overdue.
(McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY